Changing Course On Pot Businesses May Create Legal Haze For Yakima, WA

WASHINGTON: The Yakima City Council’s sudden reversal of course on marijuana this week could lead the city into unknown waters and potential litigation if it bans commerce in the substance, which is now legal in small amounts.

The council on Tuesday passed a motion by a vote of 4-3 to ask legal staff to draft an ordinance that would prohibit the growing, processing and retail sale of marijuana in city limits. The city is currently under a six-month moratorium for such businesses, although none is expected to open in the state until May or June at the earliest.

Council members Micah Cawley, Kathy Coffey and Sara Bristol opposed drafting a ban, but the motion was approved because of a change in position by Councilwoman Maureen Adkison, who had sided with the other three on a previous vote in October. The council argued about the implications for the area’s youth if marijuana could be bought legally, but the dominant question in the debate was what liability the city faces if it does or does not allow marijuana businesses to open.

Other communities have asked the same question. To help answer that, the state Liquor Control Board sent a letter Nov. 1 to the state Attorney General’s Office asking for clarification on whether governments are pre-empted from an outright ban or from modifying land-use restrictions to make it next to impossible for marijuana businesses to open.

In interviews Wednesday, the initiative’s author argued there are protections built into the law to prevent cities from opting out, while Yakima’s Assistant City Attorney Mark Kunkler said the law doesn’t specifically prohibit the city from zoning marijuana businesses out.

Alison Holcomb, the author of the initiative that legalized recreational marijuana and a criminal justice director for the state American Civil Liberties Union, said any ordinance that includes an outright ban on marijuana businesses is in conflict with state law.

“That would mean the local ordinance would be pre-empted,” Holcomb said. “It would subject the city to litigation from a private individual who receives a license from the state.”

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